BY: Elizabeth Dickinson | DATE: Jan 04, 2021

The U.S. Department of Justice has granted CUNY School of Law, in partnership with The Legal Aid Society, nearly $500,000 to establish a project that will review and litigate select wrongful conviction claims of New Yorkers incarcerated in state prisons. The collaboration between the Defenders Clinic and The Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Conviction Unit will help the next generation of social justice attorneys develop vital lawyering skills while increasing access to post-conviction legal representation. CUNY Law was one of 13 recipients of this national competitive bid.

The Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law and The Legal Aid Society are committed to addressing the systemic inequities in the criminal legal system so that no one is denied their right to freedom and equal justice. By the numbers, there are 39,683 incarcerated persons in New York State prisons with many of them serving lengthy prison sentences. Many of these convictions were secured in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when misplaced and biased prosecutorial and police responses to substance abuse, poverty, and racial tension within communities, led to a surge of questionable arrests and convictions.


Professors and Defenders Clinic Co-Directors Steve Zeidman, left, and Nicole Smith-Futrell, right, discuss their work on clemency

Professors and Defenders Clinic Co-Directors Steve Zeidman (left) and Nicole Smith-Futrell (right) discuss their work on clemency


Students in the Defenders Clinic advocate for transformative justice in the face of mass incarceration. Students gain knowledge and first-hand practice experience in various criminal legal contexts, such as trial, post-conviction, parole, clemency, and reentry cases. In the Clinic’s Second Look Project: Beyond Guilt, students work diligently on parole and clemency cases to locate and review court documents and records, re-investigate cases, and prepare motions and advocacy petitions. The Clinic has had tremendous success in securing parole release and sentence commutation. It has assisted 75 people with parole and clemency applications of which 25 are now home.

The Defenders Clinic’s new grant-funded wrongful conviction project will build on the expertise developed through its parole and clemency work, add forensic evidence investigation to its post-conviction practice and deepen a long-standing partnership with The Legal Aid Society. The Clinic frequently works with the Criminal Trials, Appeals and Case Closed units of The Legal Aid Society. Additionally, each year, the Defenders Clinic hosts an experienced attorney on leave from The Legal Aid Society as a Fellow and Supervising Attorney.

As New York City’s primary public defender, The Legal Aid Society has trial offices across all five boroughs, and specialized units–such as DNA litigation, forensics, and a Wrongful Conviction Unit (WCU) launched in March 2019. WCU hears directly from incarcerated persons seeking help, many have been in prison for over 20 years, and in many cases, evidence was collected but never tested. Today, DNA testing has developed to a point where reinvestigation, reanalysis, or retesting of biological evidence can help prove innocence.

Post-conviction case files will be reviewed to determine which evidentiary item(s) should be initially tested for DNA and/or retested using modern, advanced technologies. With a backlog of 100+ potential clients, The Legal Aid Society will hire a Post-Graduate Fellow to work on the project, and the Defenders Clinic will add a paralegal. Over the two-year grant cycle, up to 60 law students will receive the training required to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop the vital skills to litigate them, while the volume of cases the WCU can review will expand. Each summer the WCU will host two CUNY Law students who will receive paid public interest internships.

run by Alfonzo Riley (left), Elizabeth Felber (center), Thomas McCall (right), members of the Legal Aid Society Wrongful Conviction Unit stand outside their offices

PHOTO CREDIT: Eagle Photo by Noah Goldberg. Alfonzo Riley, Case Handler (left), Elizabeth Felber, Supervising Attorney (center), Thomas McCall, Investigator (right), members of The Legal Aid Society Wrongful Conviction Unit 


“The Defenders Clinic is on a mission to loosen the crushing hold of incarceration and criminalization in New York State by educating law students to be tireless and skilled criminal legal advocates. This grant will provide us with vital support to expand our work as we train law students to reverse wrongful convictions and decarcerate our prisons. We are excited that this collaboration with the Wrongful Conviction Unit will provide more access to legal advocacy for incarcerated New Yorkers, while also growing CUNY Law’s relationship with the Legal Aid Society, one of our closest partners,” said Nicole Smith Futrell, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Defenders Clinic.

“Simply put, this grant is a gamechanger and will bolster our capacity to screen more cases and exonerate more New Yorkers who were wrongfully convicted,” said Elizabeth Felber, Supervising Attorney of the Wrongful Conviction Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “The Legal Aid Society is grateful and honored to partner with CUNY School of Law in this endeavor, and we look forward to making more of a difference in the lives of New Yorkers and communities that we serve.”

The expertise of renowned forensic scientists at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science, with decades of experience in post-conviction work will enhance this collaboration. Their scientists will collaborate with the Delivering Justice Project to determine the most appropriate DNA testing and analysis. The project team will then locate and test evidence.

The grant will be managed by the Research Foundation of CUNY.

Nearly 75% of Defender Clinic students intern at The Legal Aid Society. It hires more graduates from CUNY Law than any other law school. Two Legal Aid attorneys are also vital members of the Defenders Clinic team: Erin R. Tomlinson ‘10 as a Fellow and Visiting Attorney, and Bahar Ansari ’06 as an adjunct professor. In January of 2021, two attorneys joined the WCU: CUNY Law alum Antonia Codling ‘90 and Christine Bella. Alfonzo Riley, pictured above, worked with the Defenders Clinic on his clemency application; he was granted clemency from Governor Cuomo in 2018 after 30 years in prison. The partnership between CUNY Law and the Legal Aid Society is symbiotic: The Legal Aid Society increases the capacity of their client services; experienced attorneys learn about clinical teaching and supervision in an academic setting, and students are exposed to the most current and specialized practice approaches.